Indian Tour: Who's to blame for the Kashmir controversy?

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The Queen yesterday took the unusual step of defending Robin Cook against reports a rift between Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office over her trip to India. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says Mr Cook is blaming the Tories but Labour had a long-standing policy on Kashmir.

Buckingham Palace yesterday sought to quell the controversy over the Queen's troubled tour of India by saying she was "entirely satisfied" with Foreign Secretary's handling of it.

Mr Cook fanned the political row by claiming that John Major's Tory government was to blame for the timing of the visit, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of independence for India. "It might have been helpful if they had arranged this trip at some moment other than the 50th anniversary so that we could have focused on looking forward to the exciting relationship between India and Britain into the 21st century," Mr Cook said on BBC radio.

"That is where we want to anchor our future relations with India, as two equal, independent countries with mutual respect for each other and very strong mutually beneficial trade."

At the heart of the controversy was readiness of the Foreign Secretary in private talks to suggest that Britain would offer its "good offices" if requested to assist India and Pakistan in a solution over the dispute territory of Kashmir.

Mr Cook yesterday defended his private remarks, arguing that to have refused to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan's Prime Minister would have been seen as a snub to Pakistan: "We had a successful discussion and I wasn't going to snub the Prime Minister of Pakistan any more than I was going to snub the Prime Minister of India."

But Labour has had a long-standing policy of offering help over Kashmir. The Road to the Manifesto document said: "Labour in Government would be well-placed to help find a solution to the conflict in Kashmir - a solution that is acceptable to all the peoples of the region: Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists." Sources close to Mr Cook said: "John Major said when he was there in January the British government's good offices could be utilised to assist in the matter. It is nothing terribly exciting."

A senior Tory source said Mr Cook had run into trouble because he had failed to recognise the difference between actively offering "good offices" and waiting to be asked to provide them. "If we are asked, we were ready but we didn't seek them out. What has upset people is that Robin Cook seemed to be saying, `Here we are ...' As with all diplomacy, it is a question of tone and nuance. He got it wrong," said the source.

A Downing Street spokesman yesterday made it clear there would be no attempt to revive the offer at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Britain next week.

Yesterday, the Palace distanced itself from any criticism. It said: "We have seen media reports from London suggesting that the Queen is unhappy with the Government's handling of arrangements for the State visit to India ... That is not the case. The Queen has been entirely satisfied with the advice from the Foreign Secretary and his officials in the preparations leading up to the visit and during the visit itself."

Mr Cook said the Palace statement proved there was no rift with the Foreign Office. "But if you're saying Her Majesty can be browbeaten into making such a statement, you are underestimating Her Majesty," he said.